Explainers

What to Do When No One’s Taking Initiative

When leaders aren’t stepping up, try these simple steps to reduce fear and increase accountability

One of the most common frustrations we hear from leaders is their team’s lack of initiative: why aren’t teams more self-managed? Why do people wait to be told what to do? Unfortunately, they’re not just talking about new hires or junior employees—all too often, it’s their own senior leadership team who’s refusing to take the lead. This reticence to act can stem from a variety of factors, some contemporary, some legacy:

  • Risk Aversion. Stepping into a leadership role or taking on a new project can be perceived as aggressive, or set individuals apart from their colleagues, impacting personal relationships at work. And, of course, they may be blamed if something goes wrong, which could impact their career.
  • An Autocratic “Hangover.” If you’re taking over from a leader who was a micromanager, or had a tendency to blame or punish employees for making the “wrong” decision, the team may be habituated to inaction and be skeptical of your insistence on autonomy.
  • Past Empty Promises. Plenty of organizations say they want independent-minded employees who “own” their business, but then don’t give them actual power: they can’t hire or fire people without going to the CEO, and they can’t spend money without having to ask for approval.

The good news is that there are some simple steps you can take to encourage people to step up.

  • Assess how much real power you’re willing to give people. Using a RICE model or other decision-making framework to help everyone understand what kinds of decisions have to be made, and who gets to make them. (Of course, if you want a truly self-directed team, you’ll have to be comfortable with making fewer decisions yourself.) Make sure individuals can actually carry out those decisions: if leaders can’t get the resources they need to deliver on an initiative, they can’t truly be held accountable for the outcome (or lack thereof).
  • Give them explicit permission to try. Sometimes teams just need to hear that you want them to take ownership, so set expectations around taking initiative—just remember that you’ll probably have to repeat yourself frequently for it to stick. Back up your talk with public praise for individuals who do take on more responsibility, and celebrate milestones.
  • Make it personal. Assign the task to an individual so it’s clear who’s in charge. Then, make it public. Try publishing meeting notes with assigned parties, for instance—it’s hard to hide when your name is attached. One company we worked with required one member from each division to sign off on each new business proposal. Not surprisingly, those individuals were very motivated to make sure things got done.
  • Step back. Evaluate how you respond when your team makes a decision you disagree with—if you’re quick to reverse their decision or punish them, they’ll quickly return to inaction. It’s especially important to consider whether a decision is an error—something that damages the organization—or simply isn’t to your taste. If your team doesn’t have a codified process, it can be hard to determine which is which. And don’t forget, what feels like an error to you might actually be a kind of myopia, as your team may have insight into something that you’re missing.

While these steps can help with any initiative, we think it’s especially important to call attention to DEI efforts. In 2020, spurred by BLM protests, many organizations vowed to make changes to become more equitable—but it’s also entirely possible that the chaos of the past few months means your team hasn’t made as much progress as you might have hoped. If so, we’d encourage you and your team to decide who will take the lead, and re-dedicate yourselves to pushing this important work forward.

Published January 19, 2021

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